Keeping up with the Joneses: Understanding Status and Society
What is status? Your place within its hierarchies tells you who you and others are, how you interact, and the life you can lead. Our social status affects our most intimate experiences: the spaces we inhabit, the time we have, our health, our security or precarity, and much else. Many have dreamed of sweeping all this away, of leveling the social field. But to understand the political and economic stakes of social status and its stratification, we have to ask: how is status related to our wider socio-economic sphere, to capitalism? In this course, we will study the encounter between capitalism, social status and visions of the future. How might politics address the modern interplay between class, power and status? And should it be the goal of radical politics to elevate the status of the downtrodden, to affirm their dignity amidst humiliation? Or is it preferable, even feasible, to seek to overcome status hierarchies altogether? Can we “abolish” status? And should we want to?
This course offers an introduction to sociological theory, and aims to provide theoretical tools for understanding our world. Each week will focus on a single thinker and their reception, beginning with Max Weber, whose treatment of social status as an independent object of study implied a rethinking of radical politics. Reading Pierre Bourdieu will then offer us an alternative map of the relationship between capitalism, status, and the proper project of politics, alongside an examination of C. Wright Mills’ militant sociology. Along the way, we will tussle with two rival sociological traditions for thinking about status, structural functionalism and symbolic interactionism. With Axel Honneth and his critics, we will then take a philosophical perspective on the pains of hierarchy and their possible resolution. And, finally, we will turn to Marx to ask how our focus on status might allow us to see socialism and communism in a new light. Can we recover a lost horizon for radical politics, where transcending social status seemed a conceivable route to a life of freedom?
Course ScheduleSunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
November 20 — December 18, 2022
Class will not meet Sunday, November 27th.
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